Some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s major writings emerged from the experience of planning and leading an innovative seminary at Finkenwalde, where there was a strong focus on intentional communal practices. This article uses the process of designing an undergraduate course focused on Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together as a lens through which to question pedagogical practices.
This article was published in the International Journal of Christianity & Education, Vol. 21(2), 2017, pages 146–159.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the celebrated German Lutheran theologian, pastor, and martyr, has been widely studied in connection with his life, theology, ethics, and political principles and actions, but has received comparatively little systematic attention in his connection to education. This is in spite of the fact that one of his signature activities was to shape a distinctive educational institution, the Confessing Church seminary at Finkenwalde, which provided the soil in which some of his most widely read theological writings germinated. There has been some recent attention to Bonhoeffer’s approach to youth ministry (Root, 2014), and to his relationship to the tradition of monasteries as institutions of formation (Lawson, 2013; Peters, 2014). There have also been sporadic efforts to relate Bonhoeffer to Christian higher education (Caldwell, 1992; Johnson, 2013; Miller, 2014), elementary education (Holm, 2008), and congregational education and pastoral care (Dahill, 2001; Oakley, 2003). The perhaps understandable tendency (Holm, 2008 is a notable exception) has been to focus on extracting principles relevant to education from Bonhoeffer’s theology rather than on exploring the educational potential of his practices.
This article focuses on practices, and was provoked initially by Holm’s (2008) exploration of the educational relevance of the practices described in Bonhoeffer’s text Life Together. Holm relates the themes of Life Together through a process of analogy to the practices of the elementary school classroom. The present article explores the process of designing a course on Life Together in the context of Christian higher education. I first outline the context of Life Together in Bonhoeffer’s ministry, before turning in the following section to the context of the course that is the main focus of this article. My aim in the remainder of the article is not to strictly reconstruct or reproduce Bonhoeffer’s own pedagogical intentions or methods, but to focus on the pedagogical space in front of his text, on the kind of engagement it might invite in a different educational setting. I am interested in the kinds of learning practices that might be developed if the text is approached as an articulation that is tied to embodied practice, rather than simply a collection of ideas, and the purpose of this article is to explore some of those possible learning practices. I draw upon Lave and Wenger’s notion of legitimate peripheral practices to describe this kind of engagement more precisely. I then describe the design of the course, drawing upon the reflections of students to illustrate the forms of engagement that were elicited. This article is intended neither as an empirical study of outcomes, nor as a description of necessary moves required by Bonhoeffer’s writing. Rather, it describes a process of pedagogical exploration that seeks to draw together Bonhoeffer’s educational work, Lave and Wenger’s (1991) account of situated learning, and insights from student responses in order to question a common separation of theological from non-theological education and habitual practice from critical reflection. This exploration takes place against the wider backdrop of a turn to embodied practice as a vital avenue for Christian education of various kinds (Dykstra, 2005; Smith, 2009; Smith and Smith, 2011).
Bonhoeffer and Learning in Community
I begin, then, with what lies behind the text: Bonhoeffer’s own experimentation with communal learning practices. Bonhoeffer did not offer a general educational theory, but rather left traces of his reflective practice in a specific historical situation. In 1935, Bonhoeffer became head of a small seminary in Finkenwalde, now located in Poland. The seminary belonged to the Confessing Church, a minority faction within the German Protestant churches that resisted government efforts to coordinate all social institutions with Nazi ideology. Bonhoeffer had commented a few years earlier in a letter to Erwin Sutz that he no longer believed in the university—a remark apparently directed at its potential for proper theological education (Bonhoeffer, 2007: 217). He endured dispiriting experiences as a lecturer at the University of Berlin, where he arranged prayer services and discussion groups that met with no interest, and waged a running battle against students who removed announcements of his events from the public bulletin board (Bonhoeffer, 2009; Marsh, 2014: 144–146). For proper training of pastors, he saw a need for “church-monastic schools” (Bonhoeffer, 2007: 217), and given the opportunity to take charge of the learning environment of a small group of future Confessing Church pastors, Bonhoeffer deliberately stretched the boundaries of what his students might see as normal learning practices.
Bonhoeffer’s preparation for leading the seminary included time spent visiting Anglican monasteries and seminaries to examine their modes of communal life, consultation with liturgical theorists, and interaction with the Bruderhof communities founded by Eberhard Arnold (Bonhoeffer, 2007: 158–160; Hebert, 1935; Rieger, 1966). He formed plans, never realized, to visit Gandhi in India. He approached Finkenwalde with such models of intentional communal practice in mind, aiming for what he referred to in a letter to his older brother as “a sort of new monasticism which has in common with the old only the uncompromising attitude of a life lived according to the Sermon on the Mount in the following of Christ” (Bonhoeffer, 2007: 285). While holding firmly to a Protestant emphasis on salvation by grace through faith, he also emphasized that grace was costly and should become visible in discipleship (Bonhoeffer, 2001), with such discipleship in turn becoming the avenue by which God realizes our formation (McGarry, 2014). Personal and communal disciplines were not to be seen as techniques to make us more like Christ or as replacing doctrine with practice but as forms of obedience within which we may be “drawn into the form of Jesus Christ” in the community that is Christ’s body (Bonhoeffer, 2005: 93). Bonhoeffer’s insistence that “the righteousness of Christ should not just be taught but done” (Bonhoeffer, 2001: 120) framed not only the theology articulated out of Finkenwalde but also the forms of learning practiced there.
When the seminary was launched, there were daily classroom lectures on the expected topics, but Bonhoeffer also instituted lengthy, highly structured communal devotions morning and evening, further times for individual prayer and meditation, and other programmed community interactions such as reading aloud during the midday meal (Peters, 2014: 115). At least some of the students grumbled, and there was suspicion from outside the seminary; Karl Barth was bothered by the “smell . . . of monastic eros and pathos” in Bonhoeffer’s project (Bonhoeffer, 2013: 268). For Bonhoeffer, however, intentional life in community was an essential part of what was to be learned (McBride, 2014).
The focus on practices went beyond the widely noted daily devotional disciplines to encompass an intentional approach to other features of community life. For instance, he required each student to go for a long walk at least once with each other student during each session of classes in order to foster stronger relationships between students (Bonhoeffer, 2013: 26). Social games and communal walks were organized. He instituted a rule (borrowed from the Bruderhof communities) stating that no one should ever talk about another member of the group in that person’s absence, and that anyone who realized they had done so should afterwards tell the other person what they had said (Bonhoeffer, 2007: 166 n. 5). A comment on this particular practice from Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s friend, biographer, and, at that time, student, is telling. He noted that the students “learned almost as much from their failures to observe this simple rule, and from their renewed resolution to keep it, as they did from the sermons and exegeses” (Schlingensiepen, 2010: 181). The learning taking place at Finkenwalde came not only from the lectures but also from immersion in intentional practices that fostered not so much a gradual arrival at mastery as an increased space for self-examination and communal reconciliation. The scope of these practices suggests that although many of them had direct devotional intent, Bonhoeffer was also aware of their formative potential as avenues of learning, though my focus here is not on establishing Bonhoeffer’s precise intentions.
Bonhoeffer led the seminary for 2 years until, in August 1937, Himmler declared the education of Confessing Church pastors illegal, and a month later the authorities closed the facility, arresting 27 pastors and students. After this point, Bonhoeffer continued his seminary teaching illicitly in various locations for several more years. His famous book Discipleship (Bonhoeffer, 2001; also known in English as The Cost of Discipleship) emerged from his time at Finkenwalde, as did the briefer volume Life Together (Bonhoeffer, 1996), written in four weeks in late 1938 and published in 1939. Life Together describes and theologically grounds many of the daily practices that Bonhoeffer developed with his community of pastors in training.
Teaching Life Together
I have described Bonhoeffer’s Finkenwalde experiment in order to show the connection between Life Together and intentional practice. I shift now to the focus of this article, which is course design drawing upon Life Together but in a context different from Bonhoeffer’s and with different learning goals. Beginning in 2012, I had the opportunity to develop an elective one-credit-hour special topics course as part of the undergraduate German program at Calvin College, a Christian liberal arts college in the Midwestern United States. I decided to offer a course on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. The book is reasonably linguistically accessible to German students, modest in length, and offers an encounter with significant German theological writing from a perennially interesting period of German history. It would also allow us to dwell on questions of Christian practice and formation and the nature of our life together as Christian learners. This intent quickly gave rise to a key question: what might it mean to teach or to learn this particular book?
Two examples of published engagement with Life Together, discovered as I prepared for the course, illustrate why this might be an interesting question. In a recent essay on Finkenwalde, Belcher (2013) reports that he first read Life Together when it was assigned by an organization for which he was teaching English in China. The intention was to help the teachers involved to build community; the impression is given that the goal was more personal spiritual encouragement than reflection on approaches to teaching. When Belcher later sought to teach themes from Life Together in a church setting, he seems to have assimilated it to familiar modes of church-based knowledge transmission, focusing on preaching the ideas in Bonhoeffer’s book. He writes:
As a church planter and pastor who struggled for years to facilitate community in the church, I attempted over and over again to inspire the vision for community by the big narrative of the gospel. This was a key first step. But it often fell on deaf ears. What I did not understand was that it needed to be reinforced with a new ritual, a counter liturgy that encompassed the entire community. (Belcher, 2013: 201)
Belcher confesses that, despite long reflection on Bonhoeffer’s book, it had not become fully clear to him that the practices described in it were themselves a necessary element. He sought the transformation of his church through exhortation but not through institution of new practices. “It was an insight I just missed,” he writes, “though I had read Life Together dozens of times” (Belcher, 2013: 201). The ideas of Life Together were domesticated to an existing set of church practices, and those practices constrained reception.
A second example is drawn from the academy. The book Reading Bonhoeffer: A Guide to his Spiritual Classics and Selected Writings on Peace (Kelly, 2009) is offered as a companion to studying Bonhoeffer in parish contexts and in seminary and university classrooms (p. xxv). In the preface, Kelly indicates that it was developed through his own interactions with students as he taught Bonhoeffer’s works at the university (p. xxviii). The book is thus explicitly concerned with pedagogy as well as implicitly embodying a pedagogy. The section on Life Together offers a helpful essay introducing the work, and follows this with six discussion questions that focus on why Bonhoeffer made certain claims, what he meant by them, and how they remain relevant. The only discernible pedagogy involves reading, summary, and discussion; here, again, the approach embodied in Life Together is domesticated to an existing set of practices, this time those of the university classroom.
To what extent is this a problem? There is no inherent necessity for a book to be taught in a manner that reflects its own priorities; a violent text, for instance, need not be taught violently. Nor is there anything inherently wrong with subjecting texts about practices to critical reflection and discussion or pulpit exhortation. Yet it is pertinent to ask what kind of formational intent is implied in a set of reading practices, and what kind of reading practices might be most apt for studying a formation-oriented text in a Christian educational setting (Griffiths, 1999; Smith, 2011). It seems reasonable to question whether the potential for learning from Life Together is reduced without some engagement with the practices from which the text emerged. Both the content and the context of the book imply at least three claims about Christian learning: that it involves formation rather than merely information; that this formation arises within shared communal practice and not simply through reflection on ideas; and that the formation process unfolds over time rather than being grasped or mastered in a single act of understanding. The book is more focused on performing faith than analyzing it (Hauerwas, 2004), and calls for response more than analytical distance. This lends weight to the question: what would it mean to teach and to learn this book?
My dissatisfaction with an approach to the text based only on reading, lecture, and discussion led to an interest in direct engagement with practices as well as ideas in the planned course. Yet the vision laid out in Life Together is not a very good fit for the context of a one-credit (i.e. 1 hour per week), one-semester college course in German. Bonhoeffer was teaching at a small, residential facility in which students lived in close fellowship; my own students were at a liberal arts college of some 4,000 students and lived in a variety of locations on and off the campus. Bonhoeffer’s students were expected to take part in 45 minutes of devotions in the morning, 30 minutes of individual meditation after breakfast, a day spent together in various academic and non-academic activities, and 45 minutes of shared liturgy in the evenings. For my students, in most cases their schedules only intersected with one another for the single hour on Monday afternoons during which this class met; to suggest 14 hours per week of devotions as homework may have met with some protest. Bonhoeffer’s students were pastors in training and committed enough to be willing to learn together at a precarious institution during a dangerous time. My students all identified as Christians, but they had merely signed up for a 1-hour-per-week German course and had a variety of degree programs and career plans, as well as a variety of Christian backgrounds. Christian formation was a direct and central goal for Bonhoeffer’s program, and he was leading a seminary; at the forefront of my goals was to increase my students’ reading ability in German and to introduce them to an important German thinker and his times as part of an undergraduate liberal arts education. Bonhoeffer was building the church; I was working in the academy. In sum, my class group seemed ill-positioned to become a direct variant on Bonhoeffer’s community of discipleship. Might the differences be insurmountable?
At this point, Lave and Wenger’s work on the forms of learning involved in apprenticeship proved suggestive. Lave and Wenger (1991) coined the term “legitimate peripheral participation” in the context of describing how apprenticed new members of a guild or profession move toward full participation. Without participation, the newcomer remains an outsider—an observer (imagine a carpet weaver’s apprentice who only ever reads books about weaving)—yet full participation is only available to the fully-fledged insider (the apprentice cannot immediately take over the carpet-weaving process). In order to progress, the outsider needs participation that is peripheral, offering steps towards full engagement rather than full engagement itself. This offers a more constructive alternative to being thrown in at the deep end and expected to perform immediately as a full insider (apprentices are not simply given the tools and left to weave carpets). Yet participation also needs to be legitimate—it must involve activities that are genuinely oriented towards the goods that the community is pursuing, rather than meaningless busy work that perpetuates the newcomer’s marginalization (imagine an apprentice who is only ever allowed to watch or sweep the floor and never gets to make carpets). In this space of peripheral, legitimate belonging, authentic participation and critical distance need not be opposites.
I am not suggesting that the processes described here are fully analogous to this kind of apprenticeship learning; my students were not training for the Bonhoeffer guild. We also need to be cautious in applying the terms, for it is entirely possible for a student to be peripherally engaged in a particular set of devotional or communal practices and yet fully engaged in the formative work of God in the body of Christ to which these practices are connected. “Peripheral” here does not mean peripherally Christian. The question here was this: what kinds of participation could contribute to students learning about Bonhoeffer’s approach to formative, communal practice as an essential element of Christian community, even as they remained quite peripheral to his project of forming an intentional, residential community of pastors in training. What Lave and Wenger’s account suggested was the value of partial practices—practices that are both legitimate and peripheral—less than full participation, yet more than detached observation. I wanted to explore the value of approaching Life Together through shared practices that, although not representing a full-blown instantiation of Bonhoeffer’s particular kind of Christian community, would nevertheless offer us a sufficiently legitimate way of participating at the periphery for us to gain a more embodied sense of what full participation might entail.
A Course on Life Together
The resulting course was designed with several interwoven learning goals. One goal was to expand students’ vocabulary and hone their target language reading skills; with vocabulary support, students read weekly from Life Together in German (Bonhoeffer, 1987) alongside Renate Wind’s (1990) accessible biography of Bonhoeffer. A second goal was to foster understanding of the historical, social, and cultural context that helped shape Bonhoeffer’s emphases, and documentary material was gathered and used for this purpose. A third goal was to contribute to students’ intellectual development as readers of scholarly text; we engaged in close reading, discussion, debate, and critical evaluation of ideas. Finally, the idea that students might grow spiritually and enrich their participation in Christian community through the course was embraced as an outcome not necessarily in tension with academic goals. Accordingly, a further goal was to legitimately, if peripherally, engage with Bonhoeffer’s communal practice. In what follows I will focus only on this final goal, though the others were also pursued during the course.
It was made clear at the beginning of the course that required assignments would include daily practices drawn either directly or by analogy from Bonhoeffer’s text, and that these should be viewed as part of the process of inquiry rather than as only a devotional accompaniment. Through such participation, we would seek forms of understanding that might not be available through reading and talking. Students were asked to journal each week about what they were learning from both the reading and the practices, and both were discussed in class. I also sought to engage in the assigned practices and report on my experience. Journals were graded only for completion. Although some students tended initially to fall back on ingrained habits and offer primarily textual summaries in their journal entries, many entries were reflective and also disarmingly honest (one student wrote of one task, “I found the last life point totally impossible. What a shame.”1). In what follows I draw, with permission, from these journals, not in order to claim empirical evidence of generalizable learning outcomes, but rather to illustrate specific student insights and their relationship to practice as perceived by the students.
The first week focused on the opening pages of Life Together, in which Bonhoeffer insists that the presence of a fellow believer is to be received as a gift of grace and a gracious sign of God’s presence. We are to live and view others out of what God has spoken about us, as those who have been united in Christ for eternity. God did not give us a choice regarding who else would be brought into the Christian community. Christian community cannot be grounded in interpersonal affinity—“we belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ” (Bonhoeffer, 1996: 31). Complaining about others is a denial of this; the proper response to the presence of fellow Christians is thankfulness. In addition to reading this section, students were asked to choose a person whom they would see several times during the week on the college campus—if possible, a person whom they did not particularly like. Each time they saw that person, they were to reflect consciously that the other was called and accepted by God in Christ and to express thankfulness for their life. After a week of this, one student wrote in his first journal entry:
There’s a student with whom I’m not on friendly terms. We don’t fight, but when we are together, it can be a bit awkward. Over the course of the last few days I’ve prayed for this student. The more I prayed for him, the more I found I could stand him. Now I don’t find it a problem seeing him around campus. We are not best friends, but I believe that things have improved between us.
Interesting here is the realization after such a minimal initial investment (a few minutes a week of intentional practice, not 14 hours) that reactions toward others are not ineluctable, but are susceptible to being reshaped through intentional practice. We explored Bonhoeffer’s stark assertions concerning the negative effects of pursuing ideals of community, which lead to disappointment with and accusation of others. Christian community cannot be based on the pursuit of gratifying subjective experiences of intimate fellowship, or it will falter when others prove to be sinners; “God is not a God of emotionalism, but the God of truth” (Bonhoeffer, 1996: 35). This was a challenging idea for my students to accept; many appeared more comfortable thinking of community as a warm ideal. Reflecting on how even brief engagement with the discipline of praying for someone outside the circle of enjoyable company could provide challenge, a different student wrote:
I learned that it is a humbling experience to pray for someone you don’t know. I have to be totally selfless, because I get nothing from the transaction. This other, this nameless other, will be more important than I. But I feel better when I am not so self-centered. It directs my attention more to God and to his big world and not so much to myself. Then my problems and life are not so important and that frees me. If I am not so important, my mistakes are not so important. And when I am not the center I am not as alone.
In the subsequent class discussion, students offered examples of how prayer that is apparently for others can be disguised self-interest. As they put it, if we pray for our parents to be blessed financially or for a boyfriend or girlfriend to have a good day, often a big part of what we care about is that those things will help our own days go better. Again, thoughtful discussion of ideas rooted in or sometimes parallel to Bonhoeffer’s text emerged from quite peripheral degrees of practice, as did signs of increased awareness among students of how they might engage differently with the surrounding community.
The Day Together
As the weeks passed, we gradually progressed to integrating successive elements of a time of morning meditation into our practice, including sequential reading of the Psalms. Frictions emerged. Accustomed to individual, expressive modes of prayer, some felt that strictly sequential psalm reading might detract from, rather than benefit their relationship with God. What if today’s psalm does not express what is in my heart? The mere insistence on trying this new practice brought an underlying understanding of prayer to the surface for critical examination. Bonhoeffer argues that in the Psalms “the Body of Christ is praying, and I as an individual recognize that my prayer is only a tiny fraction of the whole prayer of the church” (Bonhoeffer, 1996: 57). In praying with the Psalms about suffering that is not our own at this moment, we learn to pray selflessly and communally—to join in.
In students’ journal entries from the following few weeks there are some expressions of disorientation:
I also find this idea of praying as the whole community strange. I have not often prayed the same prayer with other people. Maybe we pray for one another, or we have a sentence that we all repeat together, but such a thing as Bonhoeffer describes? That is completely new and I don’t know what to think.
There are also suggestive glimpses of repetitive practice beginning to make space for appreciation of Bonhoeffer’s point. One student wrote:
Reading from Holy Scripture at the beginning of the day prepared me for the whole day. It is easy to forget that the whole day belongs to God. I often begin with an idea of what I have to do during the day. My mind unfortunately never rests on God and on what he did for me and for all his children. I also find it interesting and important that I think about others beside myself. Bonhoeffer says that the Psalms are for the whole community, and that they describe all its cares and sufferings and praises. Through the Psalms I can remember everything that the community is experiencing, even when I am not experiencing everything myself.
What these students seem to be describing is a process in which engagement in intentional, repeated practice created the basis for critical reflection on their own prior patterns of practice, making fresh possibilities plausible. Without an emerging grasp of the importance of community, many of Bonhoeffer’s emphases can only seem strange and overly demanding. This grasp emerged in part from engagement with Bonhoeffer’s ideas, but journal entries such as the ones just quoted also suggest a discovery through practice of instinctive self-orientation and a new degree of openness to focusing outside the self. Such openness may shift the grounds upon which Bonhoeffer’s text can be critically engaged, helping to create the conditions for seeing why his ideas might be important.
We progressed from the Psalms to examine Bonhoeffer’s affirmation of lectio continua. Bonhoeffer (1996: 58–59) notes that, although brief devotional readings are “a real blessing,” nevertheless “brief verses cannot and should not take the place of reading the Scripture as a whole.” He recommends lectio continua at the rate of a chapter from the Old Testament and half a chapter from the New Testament morning and evening, while acknowledging that at first “even this modest measure represents a maximum demand for most people, and will meet with resistance” (Bonhoeffer, 1996: 60).
Bonhoeffer’s recommended amount of reading was assigned for 5 days a week and was framed by a further activity. In class, students discussed in small groups a printed copy of Mark 12:41–44, the story of the widow placing her last coins in the temple treasury. The groups were asked to imagine they had been asked to offer a brief homily on this text, and to outline what their central message might be. The result was an almost unanimous focus on the widow as a model of sacrificial giving—how we tend to give from our surplus rather than our substance, how we often give too little and God would have us give more, and how the poor can be giving more than the wealthy. It was a familiar passage, and students seemed confident that they knew what to do with it. They were not in bad company; Witherington (2001: 335), for instance, echoing patristic readings, declares that “obviously it is . . . the attitude and act of self-sacrificial giving that is being lifted up for emulation.” Once these responses had been shared, students received a second copy of the text, extended to include Mark 12:38–13:2. The task now was to consider whether anything might change in the proposed homilies. We traced the sequence from a warning about widows being financially exploited by religious leaders, through the story about a widow putting “all she had to live on” in the temple treasury, through to the disciple’s praise for the beautiful temple built with such donations and Jesus’ rebuke and prophecy of the temple’s destruction. This raised a new question: was the widow’s giving only a positive example of her faith or could it be (also? instead?) an example of exploitation? (Myers, 1988). Suddenly the group was less certain that their initially proposed exhortations were the right way to go. We noted that a chapter division falls in the midst of this sequence, and that without continuous reading, the questions we had just raised would have remained hidden.
The goal of the activity was to move past simply telling students about lectio continua and why it has been advocated, and give them a brief (legitimate, peripheral) experience of two different modes of reading the same passage and an opportunity to reflect critically on the implications of each form of reading practice. One student voiced her indignation quite forcefully, and returned to the topic in subsequent class meetings. “Why did no one ever teach me that I have to read the Bible this way?” she wanted to know. She had been actively involved in the church since she was a small child, yet whenever she went to Sunday school or on youth retreats she had been given single verses to memorize, or asked what her favorite verse was, or given a few verses as the theme to reflect on for the weekend. She felt that nobody had ever showed her that this might not help her make sense of the whole. The same student wrote in her journal: “I don’t often read the Bible because it intimidates me. I especially avoid the Old Testament because it is particularly intimidating.” A week later she reported: “I have already said that I don’t like reading the Old Testament, because I can’t interpret it, but reading large sections of it really helped me to see the overarching picture.” At the end of the semester she reflected: “When reading the Bible I must receive better without fear, and trust that it does not have a bad meaning if it is not immediately meaningful to me . . .I should continue to read whole parts of the Bible together with my friends. That is something that I can practice during the summer and next year in my house.” She contacted me again over a year later, still asking questions about how to act with others on her new insight into the value of lectio continua.
There has not been space in this article to consider every form of practice recommended by Bonhoeffer or adopted in the course, or to explore the full range of student responses. As I have noted above, the student reflections are not offered as evidence for generalizable outcomes. My goal has rather been to describe a form of course design and a mode of engagement with Bonhoeffer’s text that uses a kind of legitimate peripheral participation to deepen formative involvement with some of its key themes, while also honoring more common academic goals. There were often signs that engaging in intentional practice opened new space for critical reflection, particularly self-critical reflection, by making students’ existing formation and assumptions more visible to them through the friction applied by the new practice. This did not mean that students ended up automatically applauding all of Bonhoeffer’s practices (“Why must everyone use HIS ideas?” one student wrote). Nor did it supplant engagement with the text; rather, the practices appeared to support close engagement with Bonhoeffer’s text and theological ideas. As one student put it,
I like Bonhoeffer better and better, because he thinks about difficult concepts that I would not have thought of. As ever we must remember that everything that we do is not for ourselves. When we read the Bible it is also not for ourselves, but for the whole community.
Not all students engaged consistently and deeply with all of the practices or all of the text, but students indicated connections between following the practices and coming to see what Bonhoeffer was concerned about frequently enough to suggest the possibility that the practices in many cases supported intellectual engagement. The result often seemed to be not just new self-knowledge, but also a stronger basis from which to discuss and weigh what Bonhoeffer was saying.
Life Together can be read with great profit for personal meditation, simply as a profound devotional work on the Christian life. It can also be approached as an object of critical inquiry, as one of the sources from which we can reconstruct and engage with Bonhoeffer’s thought. These alternatives echo a common way of thinking of the relationship between the life of faith and the life of the mind, or the church and the academy (Cartwright, 2004). Yet I have been suggesting here that wrestling with how to learn from a text such as Life Together in a Christian academic context might open up a space in which formative spiritual practice and academic learning are not positioned in tension with one another. There can be a form of critical inquiry grounded in communal disciplines. Legitimate peripheral participation, sometimes representing quite a modest investment of learning time, can create a zone of critical yet embodied engagement with the practices of Christian community. The reframing of learning described here may well go beyond what Bonhoeffer himself intended, but such exploration is important to the development of a Christian account of learning beyond the bounds of the Confessing Church seminary.
1. All quotations from students are drawn from the journals of students enrolled in German 381 between 2012 and 2014.
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